Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has a baby girl, raises her through her childhood, and then suffers through the heartbreak of finding out that her daughter will die of an incurable disease at a young age.
Then twelve flying saucers land in different parts of the world. People start panicking and governments begin mobilizing, which I suppose is only natural. But let’s face it. If they wanted to kill us, then given their advanced technology, there wouldn’t be anything we could do about it. Be that as it may, because of Banks’ language skills, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up in her office to enlist her in translating the language of the aliens. Weber plays her a snippet of the aliens talking, which lasts just a few seconds, and he asks her what she makes of it, as if anyone could translate a completely alien language from such a small sample. I was hoping her reply would be, “He said, ‘Take me to your leader.’”
Banks says she would have to interact with the aliens in person to be able to communicate with them. Weber refuses and says he is going to Berkeley to see if Dr. Danvers will work for them instead. Banks says, “Before you commit to him, ask him the Sanskrit word for war and its translation.” Is this a trick question? The translation of the Sanskrit word for war has to be “war”; otherwise, it’s not the Sanskrit word for war. Presumably, she is talking about the etymology of that word, which is “gavisti,” rather than its translation. In that sense, I suppose you could say that the “translation” of the Spanish word for pregnant is “embarrassed,” for example. Anyway, the whole point of this is Banks’ way of letting them know that Danvers is second rate. When Weber finds out that Danvers thinks the translation of “gavisti” is “an argument,” whereas Banks knows that it is actually “a desire for more cows,” Weber knows that he must give in to her demands to meet with the aliens. Thank goodness Weber didn’t enlist Danvers for the job! With his second-rate language skills, he might have caused an intergalactic incident.
On her way to the aliens in Montana, she meets Dr. Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist. He quotes from the preface of one of her books, “Language is the foundation of civilization,” and then tells her she is wrong, because, as he puts it, “The cornerstone of civilization isn’t language, it’s science.” I guess this is the movie’s way of introducing some kind of science-versus-the-humanities conflict into the story, but we cannot help but feel we are being manipulated into being on Banks’ side, for it is beyond obvious that you can have language without science, but you cannot have science without language. And just in case we missed it, the point is further driven home when they arrive at the place where Banks is going to get some facetime with the aliens so she can learn how to speak Alienish. Donnelly asks if the aliens have responded to things like Fibonacci numbers. Weber has to point out to him that they are still working on the responses to the word “Hello.”
However, even Weber seems a little obtuse on this point. He later complains that the vocabulary list that Banks has constructed has words like “eat” and “walk,” which he calls grade school words. Didn’t he take a foreign language course when he was in school? We all know that you have to start off with common words like “eat” and “walk” in the beginning, that you have to learn how to say things like, “Where is the library?” before you can start having complicated discussions about whether the aliens intend to kill us. Once again, the movie forces us to identify with Banks, because everyone else in the movie seems to be a little bit thick.
Now, it seems to me that if the aliens have the technology to travel light-years across space, they have the technology to receive our television broadcasts, by which they could have learned to speak English before they ever got here. But the problem with that, according to the movie’s version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, if the aliens learned to speak English, it would rewire their brains, and the next thing you know, they would become rational like us. That would never do. So, Banks has to learn Alienish, which will rewire her brain so that she can grasp the mystical premise of this movie, which has something to do with the Eternal-Now and the Oneness-of-Allness. This is why, presumably, their written sentences are basically circles with curlicues. Our sentences have a beginning and an end, but the circular expressions of their thoughts defy such a linear manner of thinking. I guess you might call it circular reasoning. Anyway, the practical consequence of this mystical premise is that the future has already happened. In fact, the aliens are helping us now to become One with each other so that three thousand years later, we will help them.
Furthermore, what we saw at the beginning of the movie is actually what will happen later after she marries Donnelly, and all the flashbacks she was having about her daughter were really flashforwards. In one of those flashforwards, she tells her daughter that Daddy became angry and said she made the wrong choice, after which he divorced her. The choice in question had to do with her deciding to have a child even though she knew the child would die from a rare, incurable disease. My guess is that he said something like, “Why the hell didn’t we go to a fertility clinic and get the bad gene removed?” But that would just be the same old, rational, scientific, linear way of thinking that comes from speaking English.